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When Should the Public Testify on the School Budget?

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty released his proposed 2009 budget last Thursday, and D.C. Wire has already read and analyzed every page, from the executive summary to parts 1 and 2 of the agency spending plans to the appendices.

Okay, maybe not.

But as D.C. Wire continues to pore over this near-tome, we're being helped along by some chatter that's burning up education e-mail discussion groups. Folks are abuzz about a proposal tucked away in the back of the budget document that could change how and when citizens testify on the D.C. schools budget.

When the mayor submits a proposed budget to the D.C. Council, the mayor attaches something called a Budget Support Act. The act is a long list of proposed changes in local law that the mayor needs the council to approve to make the city spending plan a reality.

In this year's act, Fenty mentions the school budget on page 47. He proposes that the public testifies on the school budget at the same time others weigh in on the entire city budget -- that is, when the budget is before the council.

The proposals seem to be the administration's effort to address a contentious issue from a few months ago, when a group of advocates sued Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee to release the school system's 2009 proposed spending plans weeks in advance. Advocates said the current law gave them the right to see the spending plans. Interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said the schools takeover made the law inapplicable.

"The law in question is not a model of clarity," Nickles said at the time in D.C. Superior Court. "When the mayor and the D.C Council overhauled the system, they left some things at loose ends."

One person who's not happy about the potential change is Marc Borbely, a plaintiff in the case who argued on behalf of the advocates. He wrote this week in the email discussion forum The Mail, which is part of e-zine DC Watch, that Fenty is trying to repeal a law that was passed by 77 percent of D.C. voters in 1987 in order to give citizens the unique ability to give input on the school budget before it reached the D.C. Council.

"For twenty years, these DCPS budget hearings provided parents, students, teachers, and community members a chance to inform decision-makers about funding needs at particular schools, or about the school system's overall needs." Borbely wrote. " DCPS is the only agency required to directly involve citizens in the budget process."

As for the court case, the advocates ended up getting some budget information but D.C. Superior Court Judge
Judith E. Retchin eventually denied their request to review a more complete spending plan. That decision is being appealed.

Jackie Pinckney-Hackett, another plaintiff, told D.C. Wire the fact that the mayor is proposing a change in the law means that their efforts had some impact on the bureaucracy.

"That just means that we were right all along," said Pinckney-Hackett, who's clearly hoping that an appellate judge sees it that way too.

Theola Labbé'

By Theola Labbé-DeBose  |  March 25, 2008; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Education , Mayor Fenty , Theola Labbé-DeBose  
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